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Life’s Journey: Forever a student

Embark on life's journey as a perpetual student of dentistry. Explore ongoing learning opportunities and evolve as a dental professional with our resources.

“I wanted to express my sincere gratitude for the exceptional course experience. Especially to Dr Neoh, who is very generous on sharing his knowledge and also very encouraging, brought a wealth of expertise making the sessions both informative and inspiring. Thank you for making the learning process enjoyable, I look forward to applying these learnings in my implant journey.”

The above was written by a course participant in the feedback form of my most recent Practical implant for General Dentists Course which has just concluded. Comments like these is what moves and motivates teachers to continue on and become better.

TEACHER, it has never crossed my mind that I will become one when I first graduated from dental school some more than 30 years ago! What I had in mind at that time is that I am going to be an ethical (enough money hungry evil private dentists stories from my lecturers), rich and successful top dentist in the shortest time possible.

Reality hit when dental market was tough at that time when the fear of getting AIDS from dental visits (the Kimberly-Acer case in US) was rampant. The only associate job I could find was in Klang. I have to travel to and fro in my old Honda C70 motorbike from Petaling Jaya to Klang daily, and pray that it won’t rain or my bike tires won’t get punctured (in a few occasions, both happened together).

I realised then how insufficient and inexperienced I am compared to my boss, Dr Yap See Wat, a skillful and honest senior practitioner with a wealth of knowledge and wisdom under his belt. Dr Yap was very kind to me, taught me the nuts and bolts of real world dentistry whenever he had the time. The patients, on the other hand, were not so kind to the short and skinny (believe it or not, I was once skinny) novice dentist who looked like a school boy. I was rejected time and time again. For those that perhaps felt too impolite to reject me, I can see the doubtfulness in their eyes. I don’t blame them. People can sense the uncertainties and insecurities in you.

Long story short, after going through a few practices, I finally opened my own practice two years later. I vouched to drive a Mercedes, live in a semi-d house and become the go-to dentist in five years’ time. I still haven’t today but those are not important anymore. I realized what is more important than what we can do for ourselves is what we can do for others, to our beloved fraternity, to the community and to the world.

What changed me ?

The great teachers that I have met along the journey of learning the science and art of dentistry. I am a keen student knowing that I am not the brightest. I go to lectures, workshops, conferences whenever I can. Not many opportunities of those locally back then. We only have one dental school, a few conferences yearly and a handful of dental societies. I started to travel abroad to learn from famous gurus. I am always astonished by how these gurus can explain difficult concepts in a clear and simple manner, develop smart techniques to make dentist’s lives easier and showcase their treatments in captivating slide presentations.

I have never aspired to stand on the podium myself though. Not even after I have met Dr Chris Chang, my orthodontic ‘father’ from Hsinchu Taiwan who is one of the most well-known names in the orthodontic world. He has transformed orthodontics, a once mysterious and complex expertise that can only be mastered by the most talented and selected few, into an easy to understand, applicable, and reproducible skill for all dentists. His teaching has benefited thousands of dentists and indirectly enhanced the smiles and lives of millions. I am fortunate to be trained by the great man not only in orthodontics but presentation skills too. However, I am a shy person and introvert in nature, my voice trembles if I were asked to speak in front of a crowd.

Although I am not a speaker myself, I can help bring the gurus who I am fortunate to learn from like Dr Chris Chang, Dr Christian Coachman, Dr Marcelo Calamita, Dr Homa Zadeh and many more back to my beloved country. This benefited a lot of fellow dentists that may not have the luxury to travel abroad for CDE. The standard of dentistry was elevated to a greater heights. I started to join the organizing committee of scientific meetings and even chaired a few of those CDE events myself. I have also organized some on a private capacity in a non-profit manner. For example: Dr Chris Chang’s Beethoven Orthodontic Residency Program and Dr Wong Keng Mun et al’s Lions Meetings. I have to admit the greatest joy after months of hard work is to witness my fellow countrymen and women enlighten by these gurus, just like I had when I listened to them.

Facebook which has started to become popular at that time opened up another opportunity to bring dentists together and share our experiences in an effective platform. I founded the Malaysian Aesthetic Dentists Facebook group exclusively for dental students, dental auxiliaries and dental professionals in 2013. It has grown to over eight thousand members now, mostly Malaysian dentists. Dentists and CDE providers can use the platform to announce the news about CDE activities. Dentists can post their proud successful cases and not so proud, not so successful cases so everyone can learn from them. Group members can post their doubts, opinions, or words of encouragement in the comment column. ‘With MAD (Malaysian Aesthetic Dentists), you don’t have to practice alone again even if you’re a solo practitioner’, says the slogan of the group. I am proud to say that the group remains the most popular dental forum in Malaysia and many have expressed that they have gained a lot from it.

Over the years, I have found that many dentists are like me, quiet and introvert in nature, putting them in a disadvantage position compared to colleagues that are better in articulating themselves. This may not be a big issue when the market was not so competitive a decade or two ago. However, there are more dental clinics at every corner now. It is sad when honest young dentists who may have good clinical skills cannot do well because of a lack of communication skills. With the support of MDA leadership and some young friends like Dr Foo You Han and Dr Elaine Lim, I founded a Toastmasters Club six years ago, exclusively for dentists and dental students who want to elevate the craft of public speaking. The one who have earned the most from it is me, being the Founding President who has to give a speech at every meeting for the first term.

The butterflies in my stomach can fly together in formation when I am on stage now. I started to speak in dental study group meetings, conferences, and conduct workshops for the younger generation of dentists. I was even invited to speak at a few overseas meetings. It’s my deep belief that knowledge is not for us to own, but to pass down so that it can resonate and produce an exponential effect in years to come. As a health professional, there is only a limited amount of patients that we can help with our own pair of hands, no matter how competent we are. And the more I teach, the more I realize my incompetencies and the need to learn more. It’s like a whole new world has opened up before my eyes, waiting for me to explore and tell it to the whole world.

Looking back, dentistry has rewarded me handsomely and I wish it is the same too, if not more for my fellow colleagues. However, it’s sad that price-cutting, unethical advertising, and financial oriented dentistry is beginning to become rampant, undermining our once noble profession. Many young dentists are confused and in doubt about their future now.

To my younger colleagues, like what Charles Dickens wrote in The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”, there is a silver lining in every cloud. The world will never be in excess of good dentists. Believe in yourself. Read more, learn more, practice more, keep improving yourself and those around you. Dentistry will be kind to you just like it has been to me.

I end with my favourite quote from my BTF (Best Teacher Forever), Dr Chris Chang; “If there is a fountain of youth, it has to be learning”.

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